A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Mondo Cane

Good grief! I didn't realize how long it's been since I posted here. To tell the truth, I've been dumping a lot of stuff I'd usually blog about on my Facebook page instead. Curiously addictive, that Facebook. Fortunately, I'm still immune to the charms of Twitter.

Anyway, here's a review of mine that ran today in the Dallas Morning News:

DOGHEAD

By Morten Ramsland

Translated from the Danish by Tiina Nunnally

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's, 384 pp., $29.95


Happy families, as Tolstoy noted, are so much alike that they make for dull fiction. It's dysfunction we want. And in his first novel to be published in English, the Danish writer Morten Ramsland has served up a smörgåsbord of dysfunction.

As the novel's narrator, Asger Eriksson (aka The Liar, The Latchkey Kid, The Bastard Boy, The Danish Shrimp, and The Bandit), notes at one point in his saga of three generations of his family, “There was Anne Katrine, who was robbed of her mother's love. There was Leila, who lost both her parents. There was Niels Junior, with his ears and his corset. There was Knut, with his broken nose. There was Madam Mother's reproachful grief, Grandmother Elisabeth's illness, and Grandfather Hans Carlo's galloping tumor. There was Great-grandfather Thorsten's bankruptcy. There was Grandma Bjørk with her alcoholic husband, and there was Grandpa Askild with part of his index finger missing and those bloodhounds on an eastern German plain.”

Who would blame this Dane for being melancholy? The Eriksson family is dragged all all over the Scandinavian landscape by the roguish, bullying head of the clan, Grandpa Askild. And yet, this is a raucous, high-spirited novel, laced with dark humor and creepy stuff out of Scandinavian folklore. And while Mr. Ramsland has been likened by blurbists to John Irving, he never goes over the top or sinks into sentimentality the way Mr. Irving sometimes does. The novel's title brings to mind the movie My Life as a Dog, and it has some of the same boy's-eye-view, off-kilter observation of an eccentric world.

Above all, the novel is a tribute to the power of narrative, the preservation of memories, however distorted and embellished, that makes a family into a coherent unit. At the end of the novel, Asger reflects that “none of us realized that the stories were the glue holding our family together, because it was only after they vanished that everything began to disintegrate, and slowly we were scattered to the winds.”

To return to Tolstoy, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. But it's the way they share the unhappiness that makes them family.